Until recently, Japan boasted the best beef in the world but harbored a secret. Kobe cattle are legendary for their tender meat ― and for the massages and beer- and sake-laced diet they're given. But since the early 1970s, many of those Kobe cows have actually been raised in the United States, where both land and feed are cheaper. Here, as in the Kobe region of Japan, they come from the ancient Wagyu breed, which yields meat finely marbled with fat and therefore both tender and flavorful. You wouldn't expect this to be good health news, but the fat is less saturated than the fat in other beef, and the meat is lower in cholesterol.
Even better news: Western producers of Kobe-style Wagyu ― who are doing it sans sake and massages but with traditional feed routines and without growth hormones ― are beginning to market their meat here. And while it's not cheap, it doesn't command $100 a portion, as it can in Japan. Bala Kironde, owner of Preferred Meats (510/632-4065) in Oakland, California, explains, though, that not all Wagyu is created equal: Breeding counts, among other things, and there are various grades. He stands by Kobe from Idaho's Snake River Farms (available in high-end supermarkets or from Snake River Farms, 800/657-6305).
James Ormsby, executive chef of PlumpJack Cafe in San Francisco (415/563-4755), serves several cuts of Snake River Kobe. He offers this simple tenderloin ― quickly sautéed to sear the outside but not melt the marbling inside ― for a special holiday meal.